American novelist James Baldwin (1924-1987) published a widely acclaimed pair of essays in 1963 under the title, The Fire Next Time. In the midst of tremendous national turmoil, his voice reflected the contradictions and angst of the racial divide in our country and how each generation relays experience and attitudes to those succeeding them. The first essay, “My Dungeon Shook”, a letter to his nephew, speaks frankly about the conditions of racial prejudice on both perpetrator and recipient following 100 years of “emancipation”. In the second essay, “Down at the Cross”, Baldwin delves into the role of religion and its effect on racial inequity. Both are unsettling as they bear testament to the ravages of slavery, inequality and basic human rights.
We have now lived and “evolved” for over 50 years since those tumultuous times. In recent days, we have witnessed the promise and detriment of the result. What was considered normal behavior and racial consciousness, has both progressed and declined simultaneously. This contradiction is the result of changes that are not new to our country – continued immigration, misogyny, racial prejudice and, at least, partial recognition of past injustices to those forced to immigrate as slave laborers. Reaction toward a goal of equal opportunity and ideals of a welcoming and tolerant country is mixed. In the cauldron of a world-wide pandemic, paired with civil unease due to racial and value-oriented divergence, some have resorted to extreme and violent behavior that threatens the foundation of our democratic republic. This is not only intolerable, but the very antithesis of the ideals we aspire to achieve.
For those who believe destruction is the only viable path to achieve their goals, I ask, what lies at the end of that road? Peaceful coexistence or a barren landscape, devoid of harmony? It is not essential to agree with everything Baldwin wrote, but it is necessary to understand the pain and anguish behind those thoughts. Whether considered in the context of civil rights, liberty, religious values or common decency, Baldwin says that change is only possible when the issue is confronted. He writes, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
The difference between dissent and descent is ours to make. The events of last week in Washington, D.C. and other locations throughout the country, are a reminder that a thin veneer separates rational discourse of differing viewpoints from vicious, senseless and unreasonable behavior. Vocal opposition and persuasive arguments will not always prevail, but violent, riotous, destructive behavior only leads to one result… fear, pain, chaos and unhappiness. Those who believe their position in society depends solely on the restriction of opportunity for others are fighting a losing battle. This is not the message of the United States of America!
James Baldwin gave the publication of his essays a title, “The Fire Next Time” as a warning of what was to come. Culled from a spiritual slave song, “Mary don’t you weep”, it is a biblical reference to the flood of Noah’s time:
God gave Noah the rainbow sign
No more water, the fire next time
Apparently, we haven’t listened closely enough in the past, will we do better in the future?